Super Monkey Ball Deluxe

So many monkeys, so little time.

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The bananas are no longer on the Dole.

Sorry - Dole is no longer on the bananas. In terms of aesthetic changes between Super Monkey Balls 1 and 2 on the GameCube and the bigger, longer and curiously cheaper PS2 and Xbox compilation, Super Monkey Ball Deluxe, the absence of the word "Dole" from bananas and stage designs is seemingly the only major change. Apparently it's a licensing issue.

Mechanically it's pretty much intact, too. We didn't have any obvious difficulty transferring our monkey-rolling skills to the Xbox analogue stick, and our only real concern about the PS2 version - which wasn't available for us to try out - is that the analogue stick may slip out from under our thumb a bit too easily. Which is something we'll talk about when it comes time to review.

Otherwise, the news for PS2 and Xbox fans - particularly those who've spent the past few years quietly masking their envy of one of the Cube's most celebrated exclusives by sneering and pretending to like Fuzion Frenzy - is generally very good. Super Monkey Ball Deluxe has 300 of the tilt-maze stages to navigate - a figure that comprises the entirety of both Super Monkey Ball games (114 from game one, 140 from the sequel) and 46 new stages - as well as all the mini-games from both titles. Better yet; the mini-games that reappeared in Super Monkey Ball 2 - some of which met with a disdainful response from critics at the time - can be played as they were in either game. When SEGA chucks the word "Deluxe" on the end, it does so deservingly.

(Daytona USA and Virtua Racing Deluxe don't count.)

But, you know, we should probably back up a bit and explain what Monkey Ball actually is. In our haste to reel off the game's impressive statistics we're kind of neglecting an important factoid: this is presumably aimed at people who haven't played or owned the game before. After all, GameCube owners can already buy pretty much all of it, and a rearrangement of difficulty levels and 40 new stages isn't going to justify the asking price to them.

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So, Monkey Ball virgins, this is now mostly for you: originally developed by Amusement Vision for the GameCube's launch in September 2001, back in the days when SEGA development studios were allowed to have proper names, Super Monkey Ball and its sequel involve navigating increasingly complex mazes as a monkey in a ball, which unsurprisingly moves in a similar manner to a hamster in a ball to give you some means of comparison. Moving your monkey around tilts the camera manically, so the effect is as though you're actually tilting the entire playing surface. The idea is to reach the exit gate within the time limit, avoiding whatever pitfalls the designers have installed along the way, and these can take the form of just about anything you can imagine - narrow walkways, bumps, slopes, deceptive slopes, moving platforms, huge bouncing balls, holes in the ground, switches that speed up slashing obstacles further up the course, pinball-style bouncing buffer things, and plenty more that haven't sprung to mind. All the while you collect bananas, 100 of which give you an extra life. And given the difficulty in navigating a lot of the levels successfully, you'll want to keep that in mind.

A lot of the levels have natty concepts that can be played in a couple of ways at least. For example, a really fast-moving downward spiral that can be beaten with a risk-averse "gently does it" strategy can also yield an extra five bunches of bananas if you hit the finish line at terminal velocity and shoot through to collect them. Some of them have multiple exits, too, which, if you're playing in the arcade-styled "Challenge" mode, will propel you further along the sequence of levels, although these are generally a bit trickier to reach.

All in all though, it's one of those maddeningly addictive pursuits that we just can't seem to get enough of around here, and the purity of the concept and precision of the often-fiendish level design inspires a great admiration and enjoyment amongst a usually depressed Cube hack pack whenever it's mentioned.

And, frankly, that's not even the best bit of Super Monkey Ball. The bit everyone has far more fun with is the mini-games. Unlocking these is tied in to progress in the single-player game, but past examples have been quite generous in letting you open things up pretty quickly, knowing full well that they hold just as much attraction as the puzzly Challenge mode (with the exception of Super Monkey Ball, Jr. on the GBA which, despite being one of our favourite GBA games of all time, was designed by misers).

The classic suite of mini-games was Monkey Fight (a mad, smash-everything-with-ludicrous-power-ups melee involving things like spiralling extendable boxing gloves), Monkey Golf (two-tap putting, in essence, on Crazy Golf-style courses), Monkey Billiards (a basic pool-style game), Monkey Race (really fast, really manic racing with boost pads and the like, which presumably looked good on Amusement Vision's CV when Nintendo came to SEGA looking to make a new F-Zero game), Monkey Bowling (an absolute classic, which is still a fixture of our gaming gatherings more than three years later) and Monkey Target (another winner, which involves parachuting onto targets that grow increasingly tricky as the points total increases, dealing with factors like wind speed, bombs and clouds and trying to collect bananas too). Monkey Ball 2 refined these (in some cases poorly) and added things like Football/Soccer, Tennis and Canoeing.

Coupled with the puzzle stages, the mini-games - all of which are tuned for multiplayer primarily but can be played by one player too - gave Monkey Ball an almost Grand Theft Auto-esque appeal; if you got bored of what you were doing, there was always fun to be had elsewhere on the same disc.

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And of course it was absolutely rammed with monkeys, which always helps.

Super Monkey Ball Deluxe is even more rammed with the things, and SEGA's also refined the Challenge and Story modes (the latter having been added in SMB2) to encompass the whole array of levels. Instead of asking you to complete 10, 30 and 50 levels depending on your choice of difficulty, for example, here you have Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced modes, each with an increasingly large number of stages, and an aptly named Ultimate mode that gives you a run of 300 levels to complete. We can't wait to be tortured by that one.

Story mode, meanwhile, retains the slightly gentler approach introduced by Super Monkey Ball 2 of allowing players to complete levels in sets, played in any order, where only a certain amount have to be completed to move on to the next bunch. Except now the absolutely ludicrous cut-scenes are now spread over the course of some 200 levels. Sadly SEGA couldn't tell us whether or not there would be new cut-scenes in amongst them, but we don't think it'd be too big a loss if there weren't. Incidentally, we won't spoil the story for you, Monkey Ball virgins, but you can probably imagine that any narrative predicated on monkeys in balls is going to be a bit off the wall. Well, amplify whatever you just imagined, because this will exceed your loftily cringe-encrusted expectations.

So then. All that really remains is to talk a bit about some of the new stages. There are 46, and naturally we didn't get the chance to see them all but we did manage to pick out a handful. Albeit only because of our innate knowledge of all the others; a couple of years may separate the development of the old and new levels, but they all gel together nicely. One, called Inertial, featured an exit gate that spiralled in and out from a centre post at speed, and required careful positioning to win. Another was an octagonal bowl with the gate high up on one side; the idea being to swirl round and round at pace to gain enough momentum to climb the slope in time. We also encountered a particularly tricky water-themed level featuring a grid of sunken octagons, some with holes cut out and other obstacles, which made it difficult to find a path through to the exit gate without plunging into the drink below and having to head back round and up a ramp to start again. We then ended up in Sewer, which was a maze of cupped waterways. Ei-ei-poo indeed.

Whether they appeal to old fans or not, however, there's little to criticise about SEGA's approach to Super Monkey Ball Deluxe. We'll leave questions about the usefulness of the Story mode and the quality of some of the Super Monkey Ball 2 mini-games aside for now, but looking forward to the review it's hard not to, well, look forward to the review. Even spending an hour toying with Super Monkey Ball Deluxe was enough to get us excited. We almost feel like buying it again. As for PS2 and Xbox owners - short of a last minute balls-up of puntastic proportions, this may well deserve to be SEGA's second No.1 of the year. Stranger things have happened. People making games about monkeys in balls, for example.

Super Monkey Ball Deluxe is due out on PS2 and Xbox in Europe this April.

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